At its heart, Once Upon a Time has always been a show about the nature of good and evil. Indeed, what else would a show built out of fairy tales be about? Fairy tales represent the most fundamental expression of our culture’s archetypes: they’re the first stories we learn as children, and are ultimately the basis for all the stories we encounter later, from Macbeth to The Great Gatsby. In the end, the role of fairy tales is to define good and evil. The very character names tell us which side is “right”: “The Big Bad Wolf”, “The Evil Queen”, “The Wicked Witch”.
Although it traded in these simplistic labels early on, to its credit, Once Upon a Time quickly realized that depth is the key to serious art (and to longevity for a TV series), and began complicating the definitions of its terms. First, we began to understand that “bad” characters often have justifiable reasons for their bad-ness: as a young woman, the wicked witch Regina (Lana Parrilla) lost her one true love; the Dark One, Gold (Robert Carlyle), was driven by a complicated relationship with his son. Then these “bad” characters began to transform, with Regina, Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), even Gold becoming heroes. For good measure, the opposite happened as well this season, with Swan (Jennifer Morrison) — the savior — becoming the Dark One.
This season, however, the relationship between good and evil has grown much more complicated, a sign that the series still has much to say on the subject. As Gold has eloquently expressed it in the last several episodes, what if evil is the most expedient way to accomplish the good? What if good needs evil? Or, to go further, what if the two are actually one and the same?
If Gold’s given these ideas their clearest expression, the theme itself has been interwoven into every level of the series this season. We saw Arthur (Liam Garrigan), whose “good” desire to unite his kingdom led to an obsessive mania that tore that kingdom apart. We watched Belle (Emilie de Ravin) struggle with knowing that doing the “right” thing ultimately left her father’s kingdom in peril. Then there was Hades (Greg Germann), such a complex mixture of love and hate, good and evil, that the only way to understand him is to admit that within him the two sides relied on one another for survival.
In the season finale, a two-part event featuring back to back episodes, “Only You” and “An Untold Story”, Once Upon a Time takes its exploration of good and evil one more step by showing us literally how the two sides can inhabit a single person. While Gold remains the mouthpiece for the idea that the two rely on one another, these episodes introduce a new character — or rather two new characters — Dr. Jekyll (Hank Harris) and Mr. Hyde (Sam Witwer). As we watch Regina grieve over Robin’s (Tom Ellis) death and teeter on the edge of falling back on her “wicked” ways, we see that struggle literally play out in the figure of this one man whose two sides, good and evil, do battle against one another for supremacy.
Meanwhile, Henry (Jared Gilmore) determines to destroy all magic, convinced that it isn’t good or evil that’s the problem; it’s magic itself. This puts yet another spin on the issue. On the surface level, his feelings echo Gold’s, though in reverse: where Gold sees evil as necessary to achieve good, Henry sees evil as forever tainting good. Both see the two as intimately connected.
That idea plays itself out on a deeper level as well. Henry begins the episode believing magic, in and of itself, is an evil that must be destroyed. By the episode’s end, however, he has come to understand magic’s necessity. In a scene borrowed from the ending to Elf, he must convince the people of New York to believe in magic long enough to create a portal through which Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), David (Josh Dallas), and company can return to this world. Here again, magic’s both an evil and a good, suggesting they simply can’t be separated.
Yet, at the episode’s end, the two have been separated again, so that in many ways the series returns itself to its beginnings. Jekyll and Hyde finally manage to separate themselves into two beings: one all evil, the other all good. Using the same plot device, Regina splits in two as well (although even here, questions about how simple it is to make this separation remain: Regina must kill the evil half of her in order to be free, and surely that act itself must be evil). Given that Hyde’s now been set up as the villain for the fall season, it certainly appears the good guys and the bad guys may be easier to distinguish going forward; however, Once Upon a Time is usually too clever to fall into that trap. I expect this will only lead to yet another perspective on the complex relationship between the two sides.
Ultimately, the move seems like a clever reboot, a chance to remind viewers of where we’ve been as a means of moving us forward, an approach to storytelling Once Upon a Time has mastered better than probably any TV show ever has.
In case we miss that point, we’re reminded during Henry’s quest for the Grail that there are still a whole host of stories left to tell. In the New York library, Henry finds a whole cache of magical books, each one containing dozens of new tales. It’s a clear message from the producers that this series still has much to offer.